Anniversary of Dollar Academy Fire

In the early hours of Friday 24th of February 1961, the school endured a ferocious and intense blaze, destroying large parts of the Playfair building.

At 5:40am on the 24th February 1961, Alec Ross, the Assistant Janitor, entered the Academy and descended to the boiler room. He stoked the furnace and opened the top damper. He then left to attend the furnaces in the Prep School and McNabb house.

At around 6:10am he returned to the main building, and was shocked to see a glow reflected in the windows of the Male Staff Rooom – on the upper floor on the south-east side of the library. He ran to Janitor Bob McGregor’s house at the top of Cairnpark Street and shouted: “Bob! I think the school’s on fire!” Bob McGregor told Alec Ross to run to Stewart’s Garage in Bridge Street (now the Bridal Shop) and raise the alarm. Leading fireman Willie Stewart leapt out of bed and sounded the siren to summon the Fire Crew at 6:15am.

Seeing the reflection of flames from his window, he realised the fire was too big for the Dollar Unit and called Alloa Fire Station at 6:20am. He ordered four pumps and a turntable ladder.

The Dollar Fire Crew arrived at 6:35am. On arrival, Willie Stewart, his son Angus, Alex Jack and Lan Jack climbed onto the roof through a trap door and could se that the roof over the Library and Male Staff Room were well alight.

The crew attacked the fire with their hose reel and the mere 40 gallons carried in their engine. This had no effect on the fire. While waiting for the Alloa appliances to arrive, the Dollar crew lay a line of hose to the Dollar burn.

During this time, both Janitors, McGregor and Ross took fire extinguishers and tried to fight the fire, however the ceiling fell in and with suffocating smoke they were forced to retreat. They turned off the electricity at the mains and unlocked the doors for the fire service arriving. Bob McGregor then went back in to salvage what he could, along with the help of pupils. However, after several trips he was overcome by the heat and had to be rescued by a teacher. His health was seriously affected and he retired soon after the fire.

At 6:45am the Alloa appliances arrived, with leading Fireman Glennon in charge. He ordered hoses on the roof to stop the spread of the fire to the South and North Wings of the Playfair building, as well as the hall.

The Library roof fell in at 6:52am, sending what witnesses described as a ‘huge explosion’ and flames high into the air. Mr Wilson said it was the loudest bang he had heard since he fought in the 2nd World War.

By 7am the fire was at its most intense, with 14 appliances – including some from Stirling and Glasgow – and over 100 firefighters attacking the blaze. After relentless efforts, the fire was extinguished at 9:55am. The Playfair building was almost completely gutted, but the East Wing was saved. The Assembly hall, Art Rooms, Gymnasium and changing Rooms survived, although they were extensively damaged by smoke and water.

Arson was ruled out by the police and fire service as the cause of the fire. Sparks from the chimney fire getting under the roof slates and smouldering overnight were reportedly the cause. An alternative theory was that gases escaped through the single brick chimney wand ignited when the damper was opened.

Across the country, the news made the front page of every Scottish newspaper and also made the headlines in the BBC national radio and television news. Incredibly, only one day of teaching was lost, and electricity was resupplied just hours after the fire was extinguished. Desks were borrowed from the Clackmannanshire Education Committee, and The Governors found accommodation for all classes, including the Boys Pavilion, the Masonic Hall, and Harviestoun Castle.

Original Article By Janet Carolan – Archivist